Thursday, April 26, 2012

Down on the Farm

The Department of Labor is currently proposing rules that would make child labor laws apply to family farms as they do anywhere else. They have long been exempted for practical reasons, but the long arm of the governmental regulating body appears to be poised to go ahead with it.

The details can be found in the article above, but it basically prohibits children from more or less doing anything that is standard on a farm. Also 4H clubs will be a thing of the past (or convert into lame leaf-identifying-offs). And one might see "labor creep"--things such as powering a drill are off-limits to a farm; how long before no 16-year-old is allowed to use one in any home, since the rationale appears to be the same?

On the face of it, some of it seems to make sense. The standard local farm is basically one big violent warehouse of disaster, with evil-looking farm implements and three-ton animals not taking too kindly to your cold hands touching their udder. It's like everything dangerous has been collected into one place, and they let ten-year-olds run around like the world's worst amusement park, only instead of riding rides they're baling hay.

And yet the "family farm" has always held exemptions due to their very nature. These are usually family-run operations, so there's a level of responsibility for safety above and beyond the workplace; it's your son or niece out there, not some random employee. Other family-run business don't normally have such restrictions and can have their kids help (although usually not with heavy machinery). And based on how the proposals appear to be worded, the bureaucrats don't appear to have much of an idea of exactly what goes on in a farm.

Now, I'm not overly fond of the culture of the romantic family farm. I think our agricultural policy in this country is nuts, yet while it breaks my libertarian heart a little, I'm willing to give farmers a little bit of leeway since I'm aware that they are in a unique economic situation (huge capital costs that are difficult to mitigate risk off of due to a volatile commodities market). Still, the subsidy framework and the perverse economic incentives don't make me too horribly concerned about throwing some regulations their way, sort of a blood payment for reaping those economic benefits.

Still, the idea seems asinine. True, there are more underage injuries on farms, but the stats aren't that far out of whack, and, besides, have been falling drastically. I certainly wouldn't force anyone, but spending a summer doing farmwork would do a whole lot of kids a world of good.

And, finally, this is a huge political problem for the Obama administration. It's not like a lot of farm states were going to go his way, but some marginal ones (say, Indiana and North Carolina) could see this as yet another rallying call ("Obama's War On Farms!") against his re-election. And while it might seem like the right thing to do by administrators in the Labor Department, that's the sort of thing you enact at any time other than a few months before a presidential election. Politically, there is no upside--you're going to royally piss off farmers and farm sympathizers, while there isn't anyone out there saying "Well, I wasn't going to vote for him, but now that he's not letting 15 year olds bale hay and effectively ended 4H clubs, he's got my vote!" Not everything should be reduced to electoral politics, of course, especially if it's the moral thing to do, but to say that it's not a factor is being naive.

The Pledge: Our government's policy on farms is stupid enough. No need to make it even stupider.


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